Photo credit: Baxter Miller
chef spotlight: vivian howard
In Eastern North Carolina, halfway between Raleigh and the Atlantic, you might find yourself in Deep Run, a place with more pigs than people, which is “not a town; it’s a fire district,” chef and storyteller Vivian Howard declares in the introduction to Deep Run Roots with plain pride.
Southern food is not a monolith, despite the singular lens in which we often talk about fried chicken, shrimp and grits, collards, and gumbo. Howard celebrates the specificity of place, the food and families that make it distinct, its farmers and foragers and fishmongers. This notably translates into over 70% of food for Chef & the Farmer coming from within 60 miles. Howard and her husband Ben Knight opened Chef & the Farmer in the summer of 2006 in Kinston (about fifteen minutes from Deep Run) with a focus on local and seasonal cuisine, or “creative cooking rooted in this region’s ingredients and traditions.”
Photo credit: Ted Richardsdon for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Howard’s groove as a chef arrived, after she departed New York, once she embraced and approached the food of her home, initially with discomfort and shame but also with earnest enthusiasm and learned curiosity: “I could speak its language—in fact, it was my native tongue.” She frequented styrofoam-plate barbecue spots and unfussy buffets that she had once overlooked. She baked biscuits (thin and crisp rather than high and fluffy), rendered lard, and learned why her family had rice (not grits) everyday for breakfast. When Howard was six, her sister recounted a bowl of grits she had at her friend’s house: buttery grits with layers of Velveeta and crumbled Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage. Howard could dream of nothing better and it became her childhood Saturday morning ritual. For nearly seven years at Chef & the Farmer, Howard served a grown variation: sausage ragout and cheese grits.
There is a clear playful yet reverential through line in Howard’s cooking; you only have to read the name of a small plate called “the spreadable South” (spiced pecan pimento cheese, butterbean hummus, “people pleaser dip”) or consider the bold delight in a side like refried sea island red peas with American cheese fondue, red weapons, and pickled scarlet turnips. Sea island red peas are the heirloom field pea that informed early versions of Hoppin John’ (or Carolina peas and rice). And red weapons, firm tomatoes drowning in brine with jalapeños, aromatics, and warm spices, are Howard’s go-to way of brightening a dish in need of a pick-me-up. Howard grants us all access, with warmness and without pretension, not only to lessons and techniques that she has learned but stories and traditions that make home cooking personal and accessible. For her, there is a resourcefulness and rural sensibility in Eastern North Carolina food, one that she both captures and honors. Howard reminds us that you too can achieve moments of delight in returning home, and that home cooking need not be boring. Howard is here to share her “flavor heroes” of everyday cooking.